If There Is Much In The Window There Should Be More In The Room

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

The Great Fire in Moscow

It seems that every side of Napoleon Bonaparte’s life, personality and activities is researched and described both in scientific literature and in fiction. So this is on a topic that might be less known to the Western reader, namely,The Great Fire in Moscow .

Napoleon Bonaparte was born the 15th of August, 1769 on Corsicajust three months after the island had been defeated by the French. He would spend his childhood hating France, the nation he would one day rule.

"I was born when [Corsica] was perishing. Thirty thousand Frenchmen spewed on to our shores, drowning the throne of liberty in waves of blood... The cries of the dying, the groans of the oppressed and tears of despair surrounded my cradle from the hour of my birth."

After the French victory, many Corsican rebels fled to the mountains, where they continued to fight on. But Napoleon’s father Carlo, a twenty-three year-old university student, readily submitted to French rule. Soon he was wearing powdered wigs, embroidered waistcoats, and silver buckled shoes.

The Bonapartes were Corsican aristocrats, but they were not rich. With eight children, they struggled just to get by on an island that had been impoverished for centuries.

Napoleon never forgave his father for betraying his Corsican heritage. He would later say harshly that Carlo was rather "too fond of pleasure."

His mother, Letizia, was a hard, austere woman, toughened by war, who punished her children to teach them sacrifice and discipline.

"She sometimes made me go to bed without supper, as if there were nothing to eat in the house. One had to learn to suffer and not let others see it." 

As a representative of the Corsican parliament, Carlo traveled to Versailles. There, he saw the splendor of the French court in all its majesty, and he worked to secure Napoleon a scholarship to Brienne, a private academy in France.
Napoleon set foot in France for the first time in the winter of 1778, a thin, sallow nine year-old, accustomed to the warmth of the Mediterranean, suddenly alone on the windswept plains of northern France. He could hardly speak French.

He thinks of himself as a Corsican. He is surrounded by students who are the children of French aristocrats. And they have nothing in common with this little foreigner. And since he is quite proud, he becomes a loner.
When he was in school in Brienne in continental France, where he was very much laughed at and bullied for being a barbarous Corsican, he dreamt all the time of…liberating Corsica. But he did something quite exceptional. He conquered his conquerors. He got the better of the French.

At the age of fifteen Napoleon was promoted to the Royal Military Academy in Paris. At sixteen, he began his apprenticeship as a lowly second lieutenant, training with the best artillery unit in the French army. His ambitions soared far beyond a military career, but in French society power and achievement was reserved for the nobility — not for an unsophisticated Corsican soldier.

"Always alone among men, I come home to dream by myself and to give myself over to all the forces of my melancholy," Napoleon wrote. "My thoughts dwell on death... What fury drives me to wish for my own destruction? No doubt because I see no place for myself in this world."

Then the French Revolution changed everything. Bonaparte was twenty-three when he took leave of absence from the French army and returned to Corsica an idealistic revolutionary. The French Republic had made Corsica a part of France, and given Corsicans all the rights and liberties of French citizens. Bonaparte, a lieutenant in the island’s National Guard, threw himself into Corsican politics.
Bonaparte soon became the leader of a faction opposed to the island’s governor Pasquale Paoli. The Corsican patriot thought Bonaparte too ambitious, too self-centered, and too sympathetic to France.

Bonaparte and Paoli are on totally different wavelengths. Paoli retains the idea that Corsica should be independent. By this time Napoleon Bonaparte is perfectly comfortable with a Corsica that is part of revolutionary France.
Clan rivalry ran deep on the island, intensifying the political struggle between the two men. Paoli’s partisans and Bonaparte’s were soon at war. In the end, Paoli proved too strong. Bonaparte’s home was sacked and he was forced to flee to the mountains.

The Corsican Assembly declared Bonaparte and his entire family "traitors and enemies of the Fatherland, condemned to perpetual execration and infamy." Bonaparte no longer had the right to live in Corsica. He had been given a death sentence by his own people. 

On June 10, 1793 he set sail for France with his widowed mother, three brothers and three sisters – a refugee family carrying with them all they owned in the world. Twenty-four years old, he was banished from the land of his birth forever.

Napoleon's strategy

By 1812 Napoleon had conquered the whole of continental Europe - from southern Italy to the Baltic, from Portugal to Poland.

England herself he couldn't get at, not after the Battle of Trafalgar of 1805, when Lord Nelson had defeated the combined French and Spanish navies.

Despite this, Napoleon hoped to undermine the economic superiority of Britain, by banning trade with her and excluding the products of the 'nation of shopkeepers' from European markets.
'Napoleon crossed the River Niemen...in a bid to conquer Russia with the biggest, most spectacular army Europe had ever raised.'
In 1807 the Tsar of Russia, defeated for the second time, had agreed not to trade with the British, but harsh economic reality spoke louder than treaties, and Russia continued to trade despite the ban.
In response, on Midsummer Day in 1812, Napoleon crossed the River Niemen into what was then the Russian province of Lithuania, in a bid to conquer Russia with the biggest, most spectacular army Europe had ever raised.

This army consisted of almost half a million men, only half of them French.The rest were drawn from Napoleon's European empire, the result of his conquests over many countries.
Some of these, including Holland, for example, he incorporated, along with their armies, into France. In this way he had an almost inexhaustible supply of soldiers.
The Patriotic War of 1812, or the Russian Campaign of Napoleon as it was called on the West, occupies one of the most remarkable places in the century-old and reach of events Russian history.
The Patriotic War of 1812 had become the beginning of the end of Napoleon's Empire; Russia had become the place of the destruction of the Great Army. 
Now Napoleon had ten army corps, against the Russian Tsar's two. After a 'good battle' (as he called it) with his 'brother the Tsar', to bring him back into the fold, he planned - perhaps - to march their combined armies to India, and strangle the supplies of British gold that had been financing successive coalitions against France.
The entire Russian campaign, in fact, was actually aimed at Britain.

Many events were contained in this heroic epoch: long and heavy retreat of the Russian armies in land, a bitterness of defeats of the first months of the campaign, the tragedy of the surrender of Moscow to the enemy, the triumph and the joy after enemy's proscription from the limits of Motherland.

The officially given reason for the invasion was Napoleon's desire to defeat Britain.

Because of Britain's power at sea, Napoleon could not even think about overcoming her without powerful allies on the Continent. Russia was a key power that did not cooperate in closing her ports from British trade and thus enabled Britain to survive Napoleon's tactics.
Another and perhaps a more important reason was that Napoleon's and Alexander's interests were in competition when it came to acquiring new territory. 

Alexander I resented Napoleon's seizure of Oldenburg on the German coast and was suspicious of Napoleon's plans about Poland.
Alexander himself had absorbed a large portion of Poland, which made Napoleon fear that Alexander might want to take the rest of it, too.

There was a third, more personal matter that might have had some impact. In 1808, Napoleon was planning to divorce his wife Josephine for not giving him a child and to marry one of Alexander's sisters.

When Alexander's older sister, Catherine, married, Napoleon requested the younger sister's, Anna's, hand.

Anna's mother despised Napoleon and refused to give her daughter to Napoleon, saying that Anna, at fifteen years old, was too young to marry and that Napoleon would have to wait until she would be eighteen.

Napoleon correctly interpreted the response as refusal, which caused Alexander and Napoleon to distance from their temporarily cordial relationship.

Surrender of Moscow

On June 24, 1812, ignoring the advice of his closest advisors, Napoleon invaded Russia. Never in living memory had so large an army been assembled — Italians, Poles, German, French — more than 600,000 men from every corner of his empire. Napoleon prophesied the war would be over in twenty days.

Advancing to Moscow, Napoleon waited outside the city gates for prominent civic authorities to greet him and to discuss terms of surrender. None arrived. Moscow had been deserted.

As the Napoleon's troops noticed that they would not be threatened by Russian troops in Moscow, they went on unauthorized pillaging trips, gathering whatever treasures were left behind by wealthy Muscovites and feasting on wine and delicacies.

Nothing went as planned. There was no battle in Lithuania - where the French leader had hoped to start his campaign. The Russian army simply withdrew.

This made it possible, four days later, for Captain Victor Dupuy of the French 7th Hussars to gallop into Vilnius, at the head of the invading army.

Eyewitness accounts describe the scene:
'...the most joyous acclamations. The ladies in their party dresses were throwing down flowers and biscuits to us from the windows.'
'...all the windows were filled with wildly enthusiastic ladies. Every hand seemed to be waving a handkerchief.'

The faster the Russians withdrew, the further Napoleon was dragged into Russia. Tens of thousands of soldiers, many of them very young French and allied soldiers, died of exhaustion, thirst or starvation in its summer heats ('worse than anything we'd known in Egypt').

Then at Borodino, a week's march from Moscow, the French and Russian armies, by now about equally matched, fought to a sanguinary standoff.

The battle of Borodino was a brutal slug-fest. Napoleon threw his enormous army at the Russians in a frontal assault, showing little of his old strategic subtlety.
The battle began at 6:30 in the morning and lasted until 3 in the afternoon. At that point, both armies were exhausted. The Russians fought the Emperor's armies to a standstill. The next day they withdrew, leaving Napoleon proclaiming victory.

Napoleon was undeterred, however, and marched on to the almost deserted Moscow, which the next day was sent up in flames - burnt down by its Russian  governor.

Whether it was started by the drunken soldiers or by patriotic Russians, is not clear although the Russians clearly had had the intention to burn the city as all the fire-engines had been rendered unusable and fire-floats had been sunk in the river.

1812 Fire of Moscow

After the Battle of Borodino, on 13 September 1812, the chief commander of the Russian Army Michael Kutuzoff, against the will of most of his generals, issued an order to retreat from Moscow.

Count Rostopchin, the Governor General of Moscow, received the news of the army's retreat at the last moment and was hard pressed to evacuate his own family with no time to organize the evacuation of the city.

Nobody expected such a turn of events, least of all the citizens of Moscow, who, on one hand, were not morally ready to accept the power of Napoleon, but, on the other hand, had not undertaken any measures to evacuate the wounded and sick, or any tangible property. The Moscovites simply stood up and left the city.

The morning of 14 September 1812 was beautiful, there was
the extraordinary autumn weather that always comes as a surprise, when the sun hangs low and gives more heat than in spring, when everything shines so brightly in the rare clear atmosphere that the eyes smart, when the lungs are strengthened and refreshed by inhaling the aromatic autumn air...” (Leo Tolstoy War and Peace)

At ten in the morning of the 14th of September, Napoleon was standing among his troops on the Poklonny Hill looking at the panorama spread out before him.

The brightness of the morning was magical. Moscow seen from the Poklonny Hill lay spaciously spread out with her river, her gardens, and her churches, and she seemed to be living her usual life, her cupolas glittering like stars in the sunlight.” (Leo Tolstoy War and Peace).

If Napoleon had hurried to enter the city he could have caught the rearguard of the retreating Russian army and many of her leaving inhabitants.
But he was busy waiting for a deputation of boyars with the keys from the city that would never come… He had been waiting for a long time, until his scouts informed him that there were drunken mobs left in Moscow but no one else. (Tolstoy)

Finally Napoleon gave the order to enter Moscow. When Kutuzoff was told that the Great Army started at last entering the city, he said
“Thank God! It's their last triumph!”
Meanwhile Moscow was empty. There were still people in it, perhaps a fiftieth part of its former inhabitants had remained, but it was empty. It was empty in the sense that a dying queenless hive is empty.” (Tolstoy). 

While the French army was occupying the big city, its dead tranquility and emptiness started to influence the soldiers. The absolute stillness around us made us keep silence and listen nervously for every sound. Even the bravest felt fear…,’ one of the soldiers wrote later. A soldier named Bourgogne confirms this, “We were surprised that we did not see anybody around… 

We could not decide what to attribute this complete silence to: such a beautiful city and so soundless, somber and deserted! We heard only our own footsteps… Of course we did not speak much… First we tried to re-assure ourselves that the citizens were in their houses and were secretly watching us… we could not even imagine that such rich and beautiful houses had been abandoned by their owners…

Approximately an hour after our entrance into the city, the fires started… we thought that looters from among us set the fires unintentionally… We didn't think the Russians were so barbaric that they would set fire to their property and destroy one of the most beautiful cities of the world!” (cited from Vereshchagin's Napoleon in Russia). 

The real tragedy was still ahead.
Though tattered, hungry, worn out, and reduced to a third of their original number, the French entered Moscow in good marching order. It was a weary and famished, but still a fighting and menacing army. But it remained an army only until its soldiers had dispersed into their different lodgings. As soon as the men of the various regiments began to disperse among the wealthy and deserted houses, the army was lost forever and there came into being something nondescript, neither citizens nor soldiers but what are known as marauders. 

When five weeks later these same men left Moscow, they no longer formed an army. They were a mob of marauders, each carrying a quantity of articles, which seemed to him valuable or useful. The aim of each man when he left Moscow was no longer, as it had been, to conquer, but merely to keep what he had acquired.’ (Tolstoy) 

Napoleon entered Moscow the next day, on September 15. His head-quarters were in the Kremlin. Napoleon knew what the Kremlin meant for Russians.
For several hours the emperor was happy and proud - he was in Moscow, in the Kremlin, in the palace of the tsars! He thought that the aim of the campaign was achieved. Here, in the Kremlin he would sign a peace treaty with the Russian Emperor on his own conditions. 

The French leader hung around for eight weeks, arrogantly waiting for the Tsar - who was in St Petersburg - to make peace. The Tsar, however, was by now in no mood for negotiation. 'My campaign, led by General Winter, is just beginning', he said. 'There can be no peace with Napoleon.' Napoleon, laden with booty, eventually set off to lead his army back to France, just as winter was approaching.

He issued his first orders to arrange stability in Moscow. After 24 hours of plundering, it was time to restore order. But the morning of the next day turned into a horrible tragedy. A hurricane that started in the morning, spread the fires across the city; Moscow's left bank was a raging inferno, the stores on the Red Square caught fire, very soon the streets around the Kremlin were also blazing. 

The strongest wind picked up burning pieces of wood and brought them down on the buildings of the Kremlin. One of the towers caught fire. Soldiers rushed to put it out as there was a depot of powder in the Kremlin that could explode at any moment. 

Napoleon, with some of his aides, hurried to leave the Kremlin, but there was nowhere to go – the fire was everywhere and soon they lost their way. That might have been the end of the great man, but for the soldiers of Marshal Davout, who were looting the city that day.

They met Napoleon among the flaming buildings and evacuated him by a route where the buildings were already burnt to ashes out of the city. That night Napoleon stayed in the Petroff Palace, outside Moscow

The inferno in Moscow continued.

‘On Wednesday in the morning the hurricane of wind started and the fire began to spread with enormous speed.

Within an hour the whole city was on fire, a sea of fire, waves rising sky-high, spreading desolation and horror throughout.
The air over the city was a burning mass, spitting embers in all directions, and the firestorm was still growing.
Never did our Lord in His anger, present a spectacle more horrible than this: fire everywhere, looters trying to escape with nowhere to run. Churches burning, houses burning. It was like the boiling of Hell, everything breaking, collapsing. 

Burning logs rolling through the streets and embers cascading, red-hot sheet metal falling from roofs, the intense heat makes it impossible to breathe, and impossible to run: the cobbles of the street are hot as a frying pen. Belltowers are all aflame, the bells breaking loose, tumbling, falling…” One of Napoleon's soldiers recollected. 
A soldier named Labaume witnesses, ‘The fire soon caught in the best quarters of the city. In a minute all those beautiful buildings, which so aroused our admiration, were destroyed by it. 

Their excellent frontons, decorated with bas-reliefs and statues, were falling onto the ruined columns. Churches were falling and the church towers too… Only yesterday we admired their shining domes… 
Hospitals, which were full of wounded, were also on fire and the scenes which took place inside were just terrible…  All those miserable men died in fire…’

20-25 thousand of wounded Russian soldiers, who were not evacuated died in the fire.
70% of the city was ruined by fire; unique palaces with works of arts, rich mansions, and churches perished forever

‘Many officers rushed to find shelter in the [Petroff] palace,’ wrote Philippe-Paul de Segur (1780-1873), Napoleon's aide-de-camp. ‘The commanders, including the Marshal Mortier himself, had been fighting the fire for 36 hours and were exhausted! Everyone was silent, we accused ourselves. 
We thought that lack of discipline and hard drinking of French soldiers started the misfortune and the strong wind spread it… We could not look at each other… we were an army of criminals… All these disappointing thoughts started to dissolve only when we learned that the Russians were setting the fires! Officers, who were coming from different places of the burning city said the same, there was no doubt any longer!” 

"Mountains of red, rolling flames," Napoleon recalled later, "like immense waves of the sea. Oh, it was the most grand, the most sublime, and the most terrifying sight the world ever beheld."

Astonished Napoleon exclaimed, ‘What savages! To annoy me they burn their own history, the works of centuries!’
On 17 September, rainstorms suppressed the fire. But the beautiful city was gone. 

The terrible fire of 1812 arose many opinions and arguments about the causes of its origin. The fire started on 2 (14) September 1812, when the Great Army entered Moscow. At night the Russians had burnt depots with ammunition, food and forage.

On the other hand from the very first day Moscow was announced to be a trophy and was given to soldiers for plunder. And it's a fact that the soldiers not only took what they liked, but also burnt what they could not take away.
The best explanation of the tragedy so far belongs to Leo Tolstoy, who wrote in his War and Peace: 

"The French attributed the Fire of Moscow au patriotisme feroce de Rostopchine, the Russians to the barbarity of the French. In reality, however, it was not, and could not be, possible to explain the burning of Moscow by making any individual, or any group of people, responsible for it…
Deserted Moscow had to burn as inevitably as a heap of shavings has to burn on which sparks continually fall for several days. A town built of wood, where scarcely a day passes without conflagrations when the house owners are in residence and a police force is present, cannot help burning when its inhabitants have left it and it is occupied by soldiers who smoke pipes, make campfires of the Senate chairs in the Senate Square, and cook themselves meals
twice a day…

‘However tempting it might be for the French to blame Rostopchin's ferocity and for Russians to blame the scoundrel Bonaparte, or later on to place an heroic torch in the hands of their own people, it is impossible not to see that there could be no such direct cause of the fire, for Moscow had to burn as every village, factory, or house must burn which is left by its owners and in which strangers are allowed to live and cook their porridge. 

Moscow was burned by its inhabitants, it is true, but by those who had abandoned it and not by those who remained in it. Moscow when occupied by the enemy did not remain intact like Berlin, Vienna, and other towns, simply because its inhabitants abandoned it and did not welcome the French with bread and salt, nor bring them the keys of the city.’

34 days after capturing Moscow, on October 18, Napoleon ordered to leave it. To deceive his own soldiers, Napoleon announced that he left that garbage pit Moscow – to Russian paupers and thieves’, and he himself went to find and finish off Kutuzoff.

Later, not long before his death he would say, ‘I should have died immediately after entering Moscow!’ 

The French army had to retreat by the Smolensk road, by which they had come and which was looted by war. 

All other roads were blocked by Russian troops and partisans, who seized practically all the transports with food and forage.

Winter came unusually early that year with very low temperatures, which are extremely dangerous especially for the hungry. Many French soldiers just froze to death

By November 24 only 70-75 thousand reached the river of Berezina, almost half of them were sick, wounded, and had no arms.

Standing in the icy water, the French field engineers built a floating bridge. The crossing was attacked. It's difficult to say now, how many soldiers.

Napoleon lost in that battle, some historians give the number of 20, others 35-80 thousands. Only 30 thousand reached the west borders of Russia.
Napoleon had lost about 80,000 men from diseases alone. Napoleon could have lowered the casualties if he had brought more doctors and more supplies.
Napoleon regarded his army as mere numbers and did not contemplate that they would be affected by hunger and fatigue.

On December 5 Napoleon left the remnants of the army to Murat and hurried to France. He knew that Great Britain had convinced Alexander I to continue the war into Europe and he urgently needed to mobilize a new army. 

The abandoned army was left struggling in the extreme cold. December 6 was the coldest day, with -38 degrees C. About three quarters of the army froze to death that night. 

The army arrived at Vilna on December 8. The famished men got out of control: they invaded warehouses and private houses, fought over food and a warm place to sleep in. However, they were not able to rest long. The Cossacks were about to enter the city, and Murat ordered the army to resume the march. Many ignored, preferring capture.

The decimated column, still harassed by some Cossacks, then moved on, aiming for safety beyond the Niemen River, 70 more miles distant. The final survivors crossed it at Kovno December 13 and 14, after one last fight at the town's river bridge--by some estimates only 5,000 to 13,000 men in fighting fettle out of Napoleon's original force of nearly 600,000 men.

Historians are still perplexed as to how and why the huge Grande Armee of 1812 was not only unsuccessful in the invasion of Russia, but why it was largely destroyed in that long, difficult campaign.

Napoleon did not lose the war out of military errors but of a simple miscalculation - a miscalculation that was made by Hitler a century later.

Napoleon believed that if he occupied Moscow, the Russian government would collapse and he would rule Europe with little opposition. But as history reveals, this tactic does not work and Napoleon is defeated, paving the way for other nations to deny Napoleon's lust for power.

After the Russia incident Napoleon's Empire fell apart. England, Russia, Prussia, and Austria allied together to fight the French. The French had to retreat. Then on March 30, 1814 the allies captured Paris. Even Napoleon's generals realized it was a lost fight and gave up. Napoleon was forced to abdicate the throne on April 6, 1814.

Crossing the Niemen in a sled Napoleon looked back at that land, Russia, which started to disappear in the white blizzard. He would try to forget the bloody horror of Borodino, the wall of fire in Moscow, and his own hungry soldiers dying in the snow… he would try, but he could not forget. 

"The actors of 1812 have long since left the stage, their personal interests have vanished leaving no trace, and nothing remains of that time but its historic results." (Tolstoy)

*original post Jun 23, 2009

*(Taken From Many Sources)*

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